Arthur Beatrice - Working Out
In action - if not necessarily in the heavy thoughts which preoccupy them - Arthur Beatrice seem to realise time is on their side. For a group so evidently capable of making great waves, their ascent has been marked by an intense calm, shorn of the nausea-inducing merry-go-round of hype and instead fuelled by the same kind of self-aware consideration displayed on songs like ‘Fair Lawn’ and ‘Carter’.
In part this is from the luxury of owning their own time, with previous singles and EPs being released solely via their label Open Assembly Recordings and Working Out being recorded and produced by the quartet at their East London studio. It grants them some freedom from the always on/everything now/has it leaked? era, with the consequence that their aesthetic is a kind of cultivated minimalism, formed by decisions that are only made as and when, and by releases that are all the more valuable for their rarity.
In a more direct sense though, it’s borne from an artistic process summed up by their debut’s title: the tense moment of creativity being given the space and time to steadily unravel, song-writing and interpretation conducted as pass-the-parcel, an egalitarian disentanglement being allowed to run its course.
Conveniently enough, the band’s video for ‘Grand Union’ provides an accessible visual short-hand for this process, as well as their influences, themes, and preoccupations as a whole. For an afternoon four musicians in their early twenties move into a grand townhouse, dog in tow. The house itself is emblematic of the pre-modernist world and romance they’ve discussed in interviews, all sash windows and wood floors. “We are old for our age” as ‘Fair Lawn’ goes.
Slowly, empty rooms are filled with furniture (some traditional, some re-purposed, some conspicuously modern), the camera following the group in various configurations as they move through the house. Occasionally these scenes are intercut with ones of the four stood around an open notebook, the focus of their huddle the sketched designs of how the rooms will come together. Each is getting on with their own work, moving with their own particular manner, but all informed by this one central mutual blueprint.
Now the cinematography is made up of shots of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Egon Schiele prints and a steadily filling book-shelf, with William Boyd’s hoax-biography of Nat Tate notably highlighted. Each choice invitingly gestures towards some significant facet of the band. First, there’s the constant tonal balancing act on the album, a manifestation of Woolf’s’ ‘knife’s blade that separates happiness from melancholy’. The lyrics work in juxtaposition and tension (“safety is the most unsettling” ; “feeling comfortable and suffering”), the minor-key dominates, and yet Arthur Beatrice balance this with their knack for a compelling hook and an expertly employed sneaking groove. These moments where layers of subtle nuance eventually explode into grandeur elevate all the album’s finest tracks, with ‘Midland’ and ‘Ornament and Safeguard’ in particular benefitting. It’s this knack, the band’s able experimentation with and employment of the tools of a pop-framework which ensures they’ll appeal to the full gamut of ears that justly ought to be at their disposal.
Then there’s the preoccupation with gender, physically, emotionally and intellectually. It’s there in the key dynamic of Arthur Beatrice as a whole, the gorgeous interplay of Orlando Leopard’s phlegmatic, reserved vocals and Ella Girardot’s delicate but lithe vocals, flitting catalytically between subdued and soaring. Lyrically though, this relationship is even more developed and incisive. Beyond simply the song itself suiting a particular vocalist, the choice of vocalist or register of harmony seems all the more pertinent when drawn against the poetic lyricism. A sense of play is created between the pair, a dialogue formed, ranging in subject matter over societal constructs and pressures (“What I do as a woman I do as a man”; “Keep in mind I’m cold and unkind for doing what I feel”) and relationships (“I’ll never roll away the weight of you, seems too much”; “I see the way we coincide and it’s nothing more than chance”).
Finally there’s an analysis of artistic purpose. The fraternal rhythm-section mount the album cover on the mantelpiece and finally the project is complete. There’s the sparest of moments to see the four at rest, to breathe the room in. Then, like Boyd’s Tate, who supposedly destroyed 99% of his artwork, all is undone: the art taken down, rugs rolled, van loaded and door closed. As a song titled ‘Grand Union’ whose key lyric (“coughing up blood, skin coming off”) is about falling apart comes to its close, in the coming together and coming apart there’s all you need to know.
In the slow but steady build-up to Working Out’s release, Arthur Beatrice have used their time without waste. Crucially, their ambiguity is no smokescreen for vacuity but a canvas for openness, their patience and careful anonymity deployed to afford themselves the capacity to grow at their own pace. The result is a debut record that’s fully-formed and finely-tuned, a triumph of enigmatic, engaging and exceptional outlier pop for the head and heart.